Self-help ideas generally belong to one of three schools of thought, whether the originators realize it or not: values-first, goals-first or process-first. Norman Vincent Peale (Power of Positive Thinking, 1952), Wayne W. Dyer (Erroneous Zones, 1976) and David Allen (GTD, 2002) are the authors of the pioneering mainstream classics of each sub-genre. Those dates are significant: the schools evolved and matured in that order, each building on the last to some extent.
In the process of exploring the question, “what’s the best way to fall off the wagon in each school?” I accidentally created a visualization that turned out to capture a grand-unified-theory of self-improvement. Well, at least a unification of the parts that interest me personally. I knew triangles would eventually be of actual use in my visualization tool-kit.
Note that self-help types have a tendency to use people and values interchangeably. It is a very revealing conflation that I might explore someday, but for the moment assume that they are the same thing: that people can be reduced to their virtues and vices. They similarly conflate habits and processes, which is also a revealing conflation I might explore some day. In a business/organizational context, goals and values are generally called visions and missions, but that’s irrelevant for this post.
The arrows represent destabilizing forces that act on each of the three schools. The green triangle of arrows, going clockwise, represents a pattern of falling off the wagon that feels natural to reformers (those who work within a prevailing social order) and wrong to disruptors (those who work from outside). The red triangle of arrows, going anticlockwise, represents a pattern of falling off the wagon that feels natural to disruptors and wrong to reformers. Equivalently, disruptors are exit people (leaving a social order is a primary problem-solving technique), reformers are voice people (driving reform within a social order is a primary problem-solving technique). If you’re not familiar with the exit versus voice model, check out the Wikipedia page.
Hidden in the diagram, there is actually a pragmatic right answer to the question in the title: continuously, and in a circular fashion. The only question that remains is this: clockwise or anticlockwise? Reformers fall around clockwise, disruptors fall around anticlockwise.
Three Kinds of Stuckness
Let’s clarify a couple of things first.
First, in case it isn’t obvious, we’re talking about non-trivial long-term goals here, the kind that require you to form and sustain habits and create appropriate systems and processes in your life. Not shorter-term one-offs which simply require figuring out a plan (a logical sequence of actions, all of which can be reliably performed, like making travel arrangements for a business trip; of course, if you’re a travel planner, that can be an area where long-term goals are meaningful).
Second, falling off the wagon is a good thing. It’s getting back on quickly that’s at the heart of effectiveness. Clinging to one vertex with ferocious tenacity is the pathology. If you’re not iterating through goals, values and processes continuously, that’s the definition of being stuck.
Each vertex of the triangle represents a kind of degeneracy, and falling off the wagon is actually a preferred way of getting unstuck repeatedly.
- Goals-first people are idealists. They tend to get fixated on long-term goals that they are neither able to give up, nor work towards. This is the degeneracy of utopianism. To get unstuck, they need to either get moving (clockwise) or quit (anticlockwise).
- Process-first people are doers. They tend to get stuck on degenerate processes that have stopped working. This is the degeneracy of blind ritualism. To get unstuck, they need to either question the process in light of values (clockwise) or break the process in service of goals (anticlockwise) .
- Values-first people are emulators. They tend to get stuck on identity issues where there is no leader offering a clear model of virtues to emulate. This is the degeneracy of leaderlessness. To get unstuck, they need to either find a new leader (clockwise) or sacralize certain new processes, in lieu of a leader (anticlockwise).
For the philosophy wonks among you, each of the three kinds of stuckness is actually related to a preferred ethical orientation. Goals-first people are consequentialists, process-first people are deontologists, values-first people are virtue-ethicists. Explore those three bunny-trails if you like, but they’re not essential to this post.
It is fairly obvious that goals-first people like to set goals and reason about how to achieve them, and that process-first people like to form good habits that make them feel powerful.
But it is not immediately obvious how values-first people make decisions about how to behave, going purely by the abstract virtues they try to live by (such as honesty or compassion). The answer is that they don’t compute directly from values in a first-principles way at all (such computation is actually a falling behavior, not a stable-at-vertex behavior). Instead, they identify good models of virtues — leaders — and emulate them, using stories about the model behavior as guides. This is of course most evident in heuristics like what would Jesus do?
It’s fairly easy to figure out your home vertex and preferred direction of getting unstuck by looking at your history. If your life has been defined by your exit decisions and disruptive behaviors, you are an anticlockwise, disruptive type. If your life has been defined by your “stay and fight” reform decisions and self-sacrificing behaviors, you’re a clockwise, reformer type.
Your home vertex is defined by wherever you tend to get stuck most often, per the list above. Few people are ambidextrous so to speak, capable of falling equally naturally in both directions.
This does not mean you don’t get stuck at other vertices, or never go “retrograde” (against your natural direction of falling). It’s just that your statistically typical personality has a home vertex and a natural falling direction. For me, goals-first is the home vertex and my natural approach to getting unstuck/falling off the wagon is anticlockwise (disruptive). My life has been defined by four major exit decisions: leaving India, marrying a non-Indian, leaving academia and leaving the paycheck world. Most of my life has been organized around specific goals. My natural mode of ethical reasoning is consequentialist, though I now happen to believe that deontological ethical reasoning is superior for our times.
In team contexts, my contribution has been strongest around goals. In my last major team project for example, a Web product, as product manager, I was the steward of the goals and vision. My team-mate who built the backend of the system generally kept us true to values with priestly authority (agile, etc.) and the team-mate who built the front-end was generally the one who broke processes to get things done. It worked well.
Whether we’re talking individuals, teams or entire organizations, there are two kinds of falling off the wagon. Mistakes and stuckness. When you make a mistake, you need to get back on the vertex where you made the mistake, and usually there’s no need to visit any other vertex. This is a conceptually simple case that we can set aside, though of course mistakes might be very challenging to fix.
The interesting case is stuckness: when you fall off a vertex because something derails you, you need to be at one of the other two vertices and are instinctively failing in a particular direction, but keep going back to the comforting home vertex where you were, instead of rolling with the fall towards the next one.
This means you have to complete a circuit before you can get back to your current vertex in a productive way or return via a shorter path that feels unnatural. For example, if you are the kind who likes translating goals into systems and processes for achieving them, you are unlikely to also like hacking an existing process to achieve a goal. If your system fails to work, chances are, you won’t just improvise a patch, but proceed to re-examining values and reformulating goals and then reworking your system in a systematic rather than ad hoc way.
The shortest-path style of getting back on the wagon is fairly rare, just as ambidexterity is rare (though very valuable), so complete clockwise or anticlockwise circuits are the interesting base behaviors of getting unstuck.
Falling Clockwise: Reform
An example of falling clockwise is a problem-ridden manufacturing process. To fall clockwise, you might use the famous Toyota Five Whys heuristic to understand the root cause. That might help you set a process improvement goal, which in turn will lead you to create a better process as an organizational habit (the hardest step). You’ve achieved reform.
Most reform processes progress like this:
- Analysis (values-based inquiry) followed by…
- Synthesis (goals-based reform program) followed by…
- Implementation (the creation of new habits from revised goals).
Falling (and failing) clockwise tends to be effective if you want to function effectively as a reformer. If goals fail, you retreat to processes, if processes fail, you retreat to fundamental values. If the values introspection yields diminishing returns, you launch reformist missions.
A personal level example is weight-loss/fitness. You aren’t losing weight, so you examine why you want to lose weight (example, you re-consider whether you value beauty, mental alertness or strength), set new goals (get to a particular weight or BMI), and try out new habits aligned with those goals.
It is falling because for naturally reform-minded people, there is a clockwise tug tempting them all the time, especially at the process/habits vertex, which is as unstable for reformers as it is stable for conformists. Each time you succumb, it feels like failure, until you learn to recognize that the falling is actually the way forward.
Reformers constantly want to revalidate the values underlying even working processes. They constantly want to check that goals are still in alignment with values. They constantly want to check that systems are driving towards goals. In fact, when there are powerful reformers around, there is no such thing as a steady state. There is always a reform program of some sort in progress to feed the clockwise-falling urge of reformists, and a thriving literature corresponding to each clockwise leg of the triangle. Consuming this literature is to destabilize yourself deliberately. Sociopaths tend to encourage this behavior in clueless reformists to keep them occupied with non-threatening reforms.
Scott Adams’ excellent systems over goals principle has ideas that destabilize goal-orientation in favor of process. The agile manifesto destabilizes process orientation in favor of values. John Boyd’s be somebody or do something challenge (to be a careerist conforming unquestioningly to institutionalized values, or a reformer sacrificing the rewards of conforming for impact) destabilizes values orientation in favor of goals.
A final note on clockwise falling: it is reform because values conflicts are generally resolved in ways that reaffirm original values. To the extent that there is a gap between stated values and actual goals and practices, the gap is typically explained in terms of failing to live up to stated values rather than the inappropriateness of the values themselves.
Falling Counter-Clockwise: Disruption
A problem-ridden manufacturing process can also serve as an example of disruption. Again, starting from the process vertex, you might be under immense pressure to deliver under a deadline, in ways that the process cannot sustain. To get there, you break protocol and process and improvise your way to deliver (often in the form of an intense-effort heavy-lift). You then set about trying to systematize the improvised process and run into insurmountable values-based opposition. This leads you to quit, create a new set of values, and found a successful startup based on your improvisation. You’ve achieved disruption.
The disruption process proceeds like this:
- Synthesis (improvising a new practice) followed by…
- Conflict (between explicit old values and implicit ones in new practice) followed by exit and…
- Precedent-setting (embodying new values in systematized new practices).
Weight-loss/fitness serves as a good personal-level example too. An example might be somebody who develops good running habits, then breaks those habits in order to set a personal record in a competitive marathon, then decides that the orthodox training regimen is wrong and invents their own idiosyncratic system of training based on new values.
The first two legs of the disruption triangle are self-explanatory. Hacking is generally a case of overriding insufficient default processes to achieve necessary goals; conflict is generally between the evangelist of the new idea and the priests of the old values who control key assets. Conflict and exit are familiar and dramatic patterns in every disruption story.
But the last step is not usually recognized. Disruptors tend to establish new values after they break away, by setting precedents. This process is generally hidden and subconscious or embodied by an individual leader. Disruptors might put up explicit and sincere new mission statements and explicitly declare certain processes sacred, but this is rarely meaningful, at least until the leader who is the embodiment dies.
An unusually legible and meaningful example of this is the legal system operating to ensure that due process prevails when there is intense pressure and sentiment in favor of subverting it. Whether it is a mob trying to enforce the judgment of the court of public opinion via a lynching, or whether it is a President trying to stack a court with favorably inclined judges, when the system resists the pressure and sticks to due process, the result is often disruptive in a values sense. New precedents are established that expand the ethical range of the polity.
A precedent created by any form of due process accepted as legitimate is often a substitute for leadership: it creates a new model of behavior that follows from principles rather than the behavior of a model human. This makes it powerful, artificial and potentially strange/unnatural to those who can only think in anthropomorphic ways.
A functioning legal system has this capacity because it is both a consistency checking system (capable of teasing out contradictions within conceptual arguments using test cases) and a truth-seeking system in a proceduralized scientific sense: at least nominally going where the facts lead, irrespective of whether the conclusions are palatable or not and whether or not new leaders or old priests agree.
In terms of values, it brings virtue ethics in line with deontological ethics. In everyday terms, it forces individuals and societies to put their money where their mouth is; to practice what they preach. It is also an excellent way to tease out the hypocrisies of false leaders (do as I say, not as I do types).
To complete the comparison, the constant, anticlockwise tug pulling at disruptors is breaking things. Just as a reformer will itch to fix what isn’t even broken, the disruptor will operator by if it ain’t broken, it just doesn’t have enough features yet, trying to make the old system do new things.
The Six Self-Improvement Personas
If you are equally at home at any of the three vertices, and capable of falling either clockwise or anticlockwise according to the needs of the situation, you’re playing a simplistic video game of some sort. Real life is never that easy and uniformly challenging.
Though there are people with lives that seem to have both clockwise and anticlockwise chapters (John Boyd would be an example, but even he was ultimately identifiable as more reformer than disruptor), most have clearly dominant styles of functioning.
So for much of the population, I think there is inevitably a preferred home vertex and a preferred direction of falling. That’s your personality. Obviously, there’s six archetypes here, corresponding to six basic orientations to self-improvement.
I normally make up archetype terms with negative connotations for fun, but for a change, I’ll try to pick relatively neutral terms that allow for both negative and positive manifestations. Each can be a hero or a villain depending on the context and situation. Each gets stuck in a unique way (remember how I defined being stuck: trying to return to your home vertex when you should be rolling with the fall).
- Investigator: Process-oriented reformer, figures out what is broken. They get stuck at habits.
- Holy warrior: Values-oriented reformer, figures out what to do about broken things. They get stuck crying wolf.
- Operator: Goal-oriented reformer, figures out how to do it. They get stuck defending the indefensible.
- Hacker: Habit-oriented disruptor, breaks things to get something done. They get stuck in chaos.
- Contrarian: Goal-oriented disruptor, fights to prove that the hacked thing is better than the original. They get stuck at visions.
- Legalist: Values-oriented disruptor, makes the broken thing a beautiful thing. They get stuck in traditionalism.
Non-home vertices and the leg opposite your vertex feel unnatural. Retrograde movement through legs feels even more unnatural. Retrograde movement through the edge opposite your home vertex feels the most unnatural of all.
For me, the reformist leg between process and values, represented for example by six-sigma projects, feels like the most unnatural thing in the world. And one of the most revealing episodes of my life is expending a lot of political capital to avoid being put through lean six-sigma training. So here is a quick personality test. Your personality is defined by which of these self-improvement meta-behaviors feels the most unnatural, unpleasant and wrong to you.
- If you hate process reform like six-sigma DMAIC, you’re a contrarian, your nemesis is the investigator
- If you hate fervent ideological debates, you’re a hacker, your nemesis is the holy warrior
- If you hate legal reasoning and careful precedent setting, you’re an operator and your nemesis is the legalist
- If you hate breaking processes to get things done, you’re a holy warrior and your nemesis is the hacker
- If you hate conflict over resources, you’re an investigator and your nemesis is the contrarian
- If you hate designing new systems and processes, you’re a legalist and your nemesis is the operator
People for whom your most disliked behaviors come naturally represent nemesis types for you, because you will likely end up in conflict with them and lose if the conflict is on their home turf.
Evil twins on the other hand, are those who share your basic orientation (disruption or reform), but are strong where you are weakest: on the path opposite your home vertex. You need them, but hate the fact that you do. Here’s the evil twins chart. Unlike the nemesis list, it is not symmetric, and your evil twins are on “your side” so to speak, in terms of clockwise or anticlockwise handedness.
- The evil twin of the contrarian is the legalist
- The evil twin of the hacker is the contrarian
- The evil twin of the legalist is the hacker
- The evil twin of the investigator is the holy warrior
- The evil twin of the holy warrior is the operator
- The evil twin of the operator is the investigator
Evil twins tend to create conflict within teams, and situational leadership tends to rotate as a result, through phases of a project.
Finally, your pattern of departure and return from your home base creates your basic life-narrative unit. For example, the legalist departs via precedent setting, goes through a tough phase either as a hacker (playing his/her own evil twin) or deferring to a hacker’s leadership (enduring your evil twin) and finally returning home via a contrarian path of redemption.
So that gives us six basic individual narratives, associated with each of the archetypes. The archetypal narrative of…
- …the investigator is the morally challenging detective story that leads to greater wisdom
- …the holy warrior is the messianic story ending in martyrdom
- …the operator is the surviving a collapse and returning stronger than before
- …the hacker is the reluctant hero’s tale, who leads a rebellion because nobody else will
- …the contrarian is the tale of disillusionment and loss of paradise
- …the legalist is the tale of the leaderless ronin who realizes that he himself is in fact the leader he’s been looking for
In practice, leadership rotates to the most natural leaders for each phase of a bigger story. Not always smoothly though.
Note that 2 and 5 tend to end in tragedy by default, while 1, 3, 4 and 6 tend to end in redemption by default. One of the reasons I am trying to shift my home base from goals to values and processes is that the outcomes are generally better for legalists and hackers than contrarians on the disruption circuit (heh!). Another point to note is that on a sufficiently grand scale, an anticlockwise circuit is a completed disruption, which creates a new normal. Think of this event as the flipping of the triangle to its mirror image: the disruptor becomes the new establishment. This means the former disruptors, without realizing it, turn into the new (and newly stuck) incumbents, just begging for their own disruption attack.
When that happens, it is likely to be followed by a clockwise circuit: a reform effort following corruption upon maturity, often under threat from a new disruptor. But to the reformers themselves, operating by an origin myth that was disruptive in its time, they may still feel like they are still the disruptors continuing on the old mission when in fact they are the incumbents who are stuck somewhere unpleasant.
So actual reform often requires reversing the momentum of movement in the original disruption direction: self-disruption. This is hard, which is one reason reform movements fail more often than they succeed, or require more than one round of reform effort to be driven through, assuming there’s enough time for more than one complete cycle.
Finally, using these 6 narratives, you can arrive at a third kind of pairing: the archetype that shares a home vertex with you, but tends to fall in the opposite direction. These represent friends-turned-enemies, people who face challenges and adversities by doing exactly the opposite of what you would do, even though you thought they were like you. Let’s call them frenemies because I can’t think of a better term: people who get along great and are ideal complements when things are going well, and who tend to part ways under pressure, often accusing each other of betrayal.
- The frenemy of the investigator is the hacker
- The frenemy of the holy warrior is the legalist
- The frenemy of the operator is the contrarian
I’m going to stop here now before I fall into a black hole of working out additional logical implications.
This whole scheme, incidentally, came together starting with failing to find satisfaction with Myers-Briggs models. I found that Myers-Briggs models were simply not situated enough in group and societal contexts to be useful for answering the original falling-off-the-wagon question. They also seem somewhat over-determined (there’s more machinery in the model than in the phenomenology it accounts for, so to speak). So even though this might seem like a complex scheme, it is actually simpler relative to Myers-Briggs (6 archetypes, 3 kinds of archetypal relationships, 6 archetypal narratives). I could probably map the 16 Myers-Briggs archetypes down to my 6, but I’ll leave that for more experienced Jungians than myself (my old Kool-Aid talk has the beginnings of a mapping).
The model is also informed by my fox/hedgehog/cactus/weasel schema. This is much more situated than the Myers-Briggs models, but too poetically ambiguous to be usable in an everyday sense. I’d guess that in my scheme, the legalist and the holy warrior (frenemies at the values vertex) and the investigator (reformer at the process vertex) are hedgehogs. Contrarians, operators and hackers are foxes. The former triad turns into cacti when stuck, while the latter triad turns into weasels when stuck.
(This whole post, in case it wasn’t clear, is rather legalist and hedgehog-y in spirit, which is not actually a very natural mode of writing for me).
To a lesser extent, the model is informed by the reorientation piece of John Boyd’s OODA loop (which I interpret within this scheme as “falling off the wagon, anticlockwise from the process vertex”). One way to think of reorientation is as the process of creating and destroying habits.
There you go. Grand and unified for sure. And at least a sketch of a theory.